First edition of A Drama of Exile: and Other Poems (or its British title, Poems). By Elizabeth Barrett Browning. New York, 1844. Two volumes, “A Vision of Poets” the lead poem of the second volume. (Browning Guide C0025, ABL Rare X 821.82 S L283d)
Printer’s copy of “A Vision of Poets” with EBB’s handwritten revisions. (Browning Guide D1094)
By Savannah Chorn
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was deeply concerned with the poet’s purpose. She not only defended the importance of poetry in general; she also wrote about what it means to be a poet that is female and dedicated to religious verse. Published in 1856 and considered by EBB to be her masterpiece, Aurora Leigh details the poetic development of its title character and includes meditations on the importance of combining social action with art, humility with wisdom, and heaven with earth. The reader follows Aurora on her journey from condescending and self-righteous ideals about being a poet to recognizing the need of empathy and relationality in poetry. EBB’s “A Vision of Poets,” published in 1844, over ten years before Aurora Leigh, can arguably be viewed as mirroring Aurora’s early, condescending attitudes about the vocation of the poet. Both poems center around a fictional poet’s journey, offer philosophical reflections on the ideal poet, and were considered deeply important to EBB at the time of their publications. In viewing “A Vision of Poets” alongside Aurora Leigh, we can get a unique glimpse into EBB’s own self-correction and maturation of her ideas of the poet’s purpose. In order to map that maturation, we will examine the themes of transcendence and nature in each poem and how they shift from “A Vision of Poets” to Aurora Leigh. Finally, EBB’s recognition of her own flaws and ability to unabashedly change her philosophies when she recognizes those flaws can hopefully teach us about the art of reading with charity and self-reflection.
Crucial to identifying EBB’s self-conscious self-revision is exploring her poetry in its original context. The Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University holds rare editions of “A Vision of Poets” (among many others) that are especially insightful: a two-volume set of A Drama of Exile: and Other Poems (the American edition of her 1844 Poems), with “A Vision of Poets” as the introductory poem of its second volume, and the printer’s copy of the poem with EBB’s handwritten comments. These can be found in the ABL Rare collection. Analyzing these original copies for EBB’s deliberate publication choices and instructions reveals a poet very interested in how her work is presented and cautious about rightly representing her ideologies.
Even a cursory glance at the two-volume set shows EBB’s high regard of “A Vision of Poets.” EBB was deliberate about the placement of each poem in the published volumes, and in the preface of the two-volume set, she devotes commentary to only two poems in the set: A Drama of Exile and “A Vision of Poets,” the introductory poems to the first and second volumes, respectively. According to the preface of the set, EBB believed A Drama of Exile to be her most important poem at the time, so it is not insignificant that “A Vision of Poets” holds this secondary prominent position.
Similarly, the printer’s copy of “A Vision of Poets” contains annotations that signal EBB’s obsession with the placement of her poems. On the bottom page 59 of the copy, the last page of the poem, EBB includes instructions for the editors to “now print ‘Poets’ Vow,’” grouping another poem about the poet’s responsibilities along with “A Vision of Poets.” In another annotation on page 19, EBB’s constant self-revision is evidenced on a small-scale with her instructions to add an “e” to her previously misspelled “Shakspeare.” These first glances already reveal a poet very serious about her craft.
Now that we have established EBB’s preoccupation with self-correction and the importance of “A Vision of Poets” to her philosophical development, we can start to examine how she adjusts and critiques her early idea of the “veritable poet” – as she puts it in the preface of “A Vision of Poets” – in Aurora Leigh. One aspect of the poet that EBB includes in “A Vision of Poets” and eventually critiques in Aurora Leigh is her image of the poet as transcendent and otherworldly, above concern for “earthly” matters. In order to become a true poet, the unnamed “HE” (15) in the poem must drink from three different symbolic pools: “world’s use,” (148), “world’s love” (157), and “world’s cruelty” (182). In the printer’s copy of the poem, EBB has instructed the editor to italicize every instance of these words, showing that she considered these pools to be very important to her poem. These three things seem at first glance to be grounded and associated with earthly matters. Aurora Leigh even arguably goes through these three worldly experiences in order to overcome her selfishness and condescension. However, the poet’s experiences in “A Vision” are treated as other-worldly and mystical, not actually interacting with creation. In fact, the poet’s mission is condescendingly contrasted to the work of common people with the line, “these rude / World-praisers” (996), showing that the speaker is not actually concerned with earthly matters, only with their transcendent use. Aurora at first also superficially values the earth in Aurora Leigh. She asks, “is God not with us on the earth?” (1.1135) and is constantly defending the world to her cousin Romney, who has a cynical outlook of humanity. However, Aurora’s depiction of married women as “common” (2.513) and “low” (2.517), and her general distaste of “five hundred nobodies” (5.280) throughout the beginning of the book undermines her seeming care for the earth.
The neglect of earthly matters is illustrated further in EBB’s use of mystical and transcendent language throughout the poem. According to the Pickering and Chatto Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in a letter to her friend Mary Russell Mitford, EBB describes “A Vision of Poets” as “allegorical & mystical & nearly everything it ought not be to please you” (179), and later as “philosophical, allegorical, — anything but popular” (180). Apparently, Mary Russell Mitford did not like the abstract tendencies in EBB’s poetry, which abound in “A Vision of Poets.” The fact that the poem centers on an allegorical dream journey alone highlights its abstractness, but the poem’s epigraph – taken from William Browne’s Britannia’s Pastorals (1613-16) – also praises mystical heavenly power over concrete earthly power:
O Sacred Essence, lighting me this hour,
How may I lightly stile thy great power?
Power! but of whence? under the greenwood spraye?
Or liv’st in Heaven? saye.
Echo. In Heavens aye.
The “Heavens” are what gives the poet power, and they are deliberately put in contrast with the earthly “greenwood spraye,” creating a division between heaven and earth that Aurora repents of in her mature view of the poet in Aurora Leigh. Again, “A Vision of Poets” is not wholly free from positive natural imagery. As seen in the printer’s copy of the poem, EBB changes “Dryads” (11) to “wood-nymphs” in the fourth stanza, making the natural imagery of “wood-nymphs” more explicit. Here we can glimpse on a small-scale the beginnings of EBB’s turn towards a fuller engagement with nature that is finally actualized in Aurora Leigh.
Further, EBB’s heaven-focus in “A Vision of Poets” equips the poet with prophetic and superior powers that often mirror Aurora’s early tendencies towards condescension. Karen Dieleman argues that instead of EBB’s usual characterization of the “poet as prophet,” Aurora Leigh “illustrates [EBB’s] mature concept of the poet-preacher and the value of the democratic dialogic over the authoritative and visionary” (91). While I would agree with Dieleman that EBB arrives at the concept of “poet as preacher” in Aurora Leigh, among creation and in dialogue with the rest of humanity, “authoritative and visionary” are the perfect words to describe EBB’s characterization of the poet in “A Vision of Poets.” Therefore, her early and imperfect view of the poet can be described as “poet as prophet.” In the middle of the poem, right after the male poet has drunk from the pools of world’s use, love, and cruelty, he comes upon a fantastical vision of over forty poets from Homer to Coleridge, described as “God’s prophets of the Beautiful” (301). EBB makes sure to separate the poets’ connection to God from the speaker’s with the line, “for you saw / That they saw God” (253). Only this deific host of poets has direct access to God, and their job is to act as prophets to the ordinary people. This authoritative position can seem quite condescending, especially considering that EBB calls God “the chief Poet,” by extension giving poets divine powers (including herself). EBB hints at genuine interaction with humanity at the end of the poem with the child who weeps over the dead poet (a scene that deserves greater attention that cannot be granted in this post), however, for the most part, the poet is pictured as otherworldly, “alone” (978), and self-important. As this post has shown, EBB rejects this vision of the poet as prophet by the end of Aurora Leigh and embraces instead humility and relationality.
Comparing EBB’s characterization of the poet’s purpose in “A Vision of Poets” and Aurora Leigh reveals a poet unafraid to change her opinions and who even condemns her own earlier views in her later published work. In the preface to the two-volume set containing “A Vision of Poets,” EBB writes,
[M]y poems, while full of faults, — as I go forward to my critics and confess, — have my heart and life in them: they are not empty shells. … I have done my work, so far, as work; not mere hand and head work apart from the personal being, but as the completest expression of that being to which I could attain, — and, as work, I offer it to the public; feeling its faultiness more deeply than any of my readers.
EBB expresses that her poems represent her own thoughts completely, but at the same time she acknowledges that her thoughts are imperfect and subject to revision. Viewing EBB’s poetry – and any writer’s work – as a life-long process can help us read charitably and remember, just as EBB learned between the publications of “A Vision of Poets” and Aurora Leigh, that poets are not deities but humans, and we all deserve the ability to grow from past mistakes.
Hopefully this post will encourage teachers and scholars to read poetry within all its contexts, including its original form of publication and the poet’s entire oeuvre. From a pedagogical standpoint, instructors can be increasingly attentive to reading an author’s work ethically by assigning works from across a poet’s body of work, highlighting the change in themes and maturation of style and philosophies. Pairing an early career with a later career work allows students to approach authors with charity and recognize the humanity within even the seemingly infallible greats of the literary world. Recognizing growth and change within such famous authors could also encourage young scholars and creatives in their own writing process, as writing is just that – a process – that improves with time and allows for changes in opinions and philosophies.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh, edited by Margaret Reynolds, W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
—. “A Vision of Poets.” The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Volume 1, edited by Sandra Donaldson, Marjorie Stone, Beverly Taylor, and Rita S. Patteson, Pickering & Chatto, 2010, 185-200.
Dieleman, Karen. Religious Imaginaries: The Liturgical and Poetic Practices of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Adelaide Procter. Athens, Ohio University Press, 2012.
Donaldson, Sandra, Marjorie Stone, Beverly Taylor, and Rita S. Patteson, editors. Preface to “A Vision of Poets.” The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Volume 1. Pickering & Chatto, 2010.